My rating: 5 of 5 stars
While this is no more than an interview transcription, this is a wonderful capture of one of the most dynamic composers and conductors of the 20th century. Jonathan Cott sat down with Leonard Bernstein for "dinner," which was more of a 12 hour interview marathon. He published an excerpt version in Rolling Stone in 1989, the year before Bernstein's death. Now it is being released in its entirety.
What I love about this is how much Bernstein comes through, from the musical examples he sings or jumps up to play on the piano, to his teasing of the interviewer. I felt like I was having dinner with him too, and immediately went out in search of the works and recordings that were mentioned. (In fact, I'm listening to the orchestral transcriptions he did of the Beethoven String Quartet Op. 131 as I write this review.)
Bernstein was sometimes criticized by other conductors for being overly emotional in his interpretation of work. His response: "The other guys just haven't got the courage to play what Mahler wrote, that's all. I'm a composer, and I understand what he meant. That's the difference."
He also expressed frustration over orchestras being boxed by sound that had to do with a conductor or aesthetic, rather than attending to the intentions of the composer.
"Every orchestra can and should be made to sound like the composer it's playing, and not like itself - Haydn in Haydn's style, Ravel in Ravel's style, and Mahler in Mahler's style... and not with a "Philadelphia" or a "Berlin Philharmonic" sound. I'm against 'sounds.'"Bernstein has quite a bit to say about the human response to music as well:
"There's an inner geography of the human being that can be captured by music, and not by anything else."He goes on to discuss how children have innate musical ability, and what blocks people develop through upbringing and experience.
Overall, this is a quick and enjoyable read, and should be accompanied with a good dose of listening to Bernstein, both as a composer and conductor.
This is more of a note to myself, but I loved that the author read this excerpt of Song of Myself by Walt Whitman to Bernstein, and captured his response.
"The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,
It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possess'd them,
It sails me, I dab with bare feet, they are lick'd by the indolent waves,
I am cut by bitter and angry hail, I lose my breath,
Steep'd amid honey'd morphine, my windpipe throttled in fakes of death,
At length let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles,
And that we call being."